The Great Alone Book Review

The Great Alone (novel)
By Kristin Hannah

I’ve never been to Alaska but this book makes me want to visit. Not only does the author do a fine job describing the majestic scenery of Alaska, she’s also able to capture who the regular Alaskan people are, how they live and work in the outback, logging and clearing roads in the short summer, and smoking strips of marinated salmon for the long, bitter winter. How can you not appreciate an author who is observant and sensitive enough to distinguish the difference between a lower-48, night sky (black) and the winter sky of Alaska (a velvet blue with ambient light from the snow-covered terrain). I loved reading Hannah’s prose.

But all that glorious setting and description is just the frosting on the cake. The cake being a wonderfully involving story of a family in the 70’s trying to survive in the Alaskan wilderness. The story is told from the daughter, Leni’s perspective. She’s a lovely, auburn-haired teenager, an only child, trying to survive not only the Alaskan wilderness (“there’s a hundred ways to die in Alaska”), but her troubled parents. Her violent, unstable father, Ernt, is an ex-POW from the Viet Nam war. Leni loves her sweet, chain-smoking mother, but cannot understand why she doesn’t leave her abusive father. Ernt becomes part of the extremist fringe in Alaska, wanting to keep the world away and live “back to the earth.” He wakes Leni up in the middle of the night to train her how to quickly assemble and load her gun in case of government attack.

When Leni discovers love with the son of her father’s worst enemy, Tom Walker, the town patriarch and progressive, I couldn’t help but think of the family conflict in Romeo and Juliet. I’m relieved to report this story takes an entirely different direction than Shakespeare’s tragedy. Leni struggles to adulthood, but finally discovers her own voice and freedom.

I can’t say how much I liked this book. Hannah does all the right things with character development and plot. I stayed up until midnight last night reading. And that, blog readers, is probably the best recommendation and review I can give any book.

Idaho Book Review

Idaho (novel)
By Emily Ruskovich

I wonder if all books entitled with a state name don’t find an automatic audience of thousands of people within that state wanting to read the book. James Michener, an old epic author from the 70’s and 80’s used to title his novels after their state setting: Texas, Hawaii, Alaska. So, as an Idahoan, I approached Emily Ruskovich’s novel with a lot of anticipation. What would she say about our state and how would she characterize the people that live here?

I’m pleased to report Ruskovich writes a sensitive and human story of two women living in a rural area of north Idaho driven by love to the same damaged man, Wade. Wade is a homesteader and day laborer who has some kind of early onset dementia (his disease is never fully explained).

Though Ruskovich writes beautifully and expressively about simple things like a minister leaving a bowl of pears for a prison inmate, this is a brutal, tragic tale of domestic violence. Wade’s wife, Jenny, apparently in a jealous rage, murders their younger daughter, May. It appears to be a crime of passion, but the reader is not sure what happened. With Wade’s forgetfulness and Jenny’s obsessive love, there’s even a lingering question of whether Jenny was actually the murderer. The mystery of that fateful day is further amplified by the disappearance of the older daughter, June, who had a troubled relationship with her younger sister, May. It’s questions like these that propel the narrative along and keep the reader guessing.

Though Ruskovich is a gifted writer with a fascinating story to tell, some readers will be put off with the way the author jumps back and forth in time and between different character perspectives. Interestingly, readers are never privy to Wade’s perspective about what happened to his family. This story could have been too dark, but the ending is satisfying. There is always room for redemption in even the most despairing situation.

Home Work: Nothing to Grumble About

Since Covid-19, some people enjoy the variety of working from home.  They feel better about the “drudgery factor” related to their daily job.

In a recent survey from getAbstract the majority of respondents said they’d like to continue at-home work, at least part-time, even after their offices open back up.

When you work from home and you’re tired hunched over a computer, you can stretch out on the couch for a ten (thirty?) minute nap.  During my career as a high school English teacher, I didn’t have the luxury of working from home–and like many teachers I had a tendency to overwork.

I became wall-eyed from grading student papers.  I’d spend hours editing their writing.  I suffered through one inspired metaphor after another: “Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.”  

My friend Ed, who was the school psychologist, noticed how drawn and fatigued I looked.  He was very philosophical about work and working. “Chop wood, carry water,” Ed told me sitting in his office. “That’s what most jobs are about–tasks that have to be done.”  At the time, this sounded like Buddhist bunkum and I told Ed so, but he just smiled. How could he compare my educational career to chopping wood and carrying water?  I made a difference.  I was significant.  Besides, teaching required skills.

Ed’s comment about wood-chopping seemed so demeaning, I wanted to argue with him that many people felt passionate and fulfilled by their jobs.  What’s the meme you hear from people who love their work?  I can’t believe I get paid to do this.  They have trouble retiring because they can’t imagine a meaningful existence without going to work.

Later, I realized Ed was just trying to encourage me to pace myself more, and keep my career as an educator in perspective.  But I never forgot his phrase “chop wood, carry water.” I now think I underestimated this idea.  Whether you work from an office or at home, whether you’re a bank president or a welder, no doubt your job is comprised of several repetitive, menial tasks like filling out paperwork or sharpening your tools.

When I think about it, most of the work I’ve done in my life has been chopping wood and carrying water. How many beds have I made, dishes have I washed, and meals have I prepared in a life time? I spent way more time doing these kinds of activities than breakthrough research on why Johnny still can’t write a decent metaphor.  And actually, it’s the simple tasks of living that helped me learn to be more accepting and patient with the difficult work I later did as a teacher.

Some people are actually happier doing mindless, wood-chopping work.  And others risk getting burned-out performing work that requires passionate intensity.  My friend Steve was a postman for more than thirty years delivering mail on the same routes over and over again, but he liked his job because he said it wasn’t taxing: he didn’t have to think.  Mike, on the other hand, a gifted woodcraft artist, abruptly quit carving wood last year and moved to Seattle.  His comment: “The art took too much out of me and frankly, I began to dread it.”

Working from home is nothing new. We’ve all done this for years, we’ve just never acknowledged the importance of home work before.  So, during this pandemic my best words of advice:  chop wood, carry water, stay calm, and carry on!


Image credit:  grading student papers        Image credit:  chopping wood 


How Are Your Alpha Waves?

My adult son, John, came home for a visit and told me, “Ignore anything I say that sounds off—it’s my suppressed-narcissistic-rage talking.”

“You’re what?”

“I’m reading this book, The Divided Mind by John Sarno about how you can be this kind, nice guy on the outside, but inside you’re really angry. You want to be special and loved and dependent and independent all at the same time. People around you just aren’t giving you what you need.”

We both laughed because someone had created such a big term for what is basically, the human condition. I’d not read the book, but John said it was about psychogenic illness.

“Is that like psychosomatic illness?”

“No. Psychosomatic is like partly in your head. Psychogenic says the illness IS ALL in your head.”

John acted like the book was mildly entertaining, but my interest was piqued because I’ve experienced psychosomatic illness in the past. It could be a family mental health issue. My mother always claimed Aunt Gertrude was a complete hypochondriac. If anyone mentioned a health problem they had, Aunt Gertrude had that same issue or worse. Her nerves were shot, her back was torqued, and her female parts were in complete disarray. Miraculously, Gertrude lived well into her 70’s.

My psychosomatic illness started probably with the death of my brother when he was ten and I was twelve. But symptoms didn’t show up until I was in a potentially fatal car accident when I was twenty. I only had a mild concussion, but I’d never come that close to death before.

Suddenly I realized my body was fallible.

For the next year, I found myself in one emergency room after another begging for help. I had heart palpitations, headaches, and vague feelings of pain. I was listening so closely and carefully to my body, every hitch or tremor was evidence of some deadly disease. Something had to be wrong with me.

Indeed, I did have a problem but it wasn’t exactly physical. I’d been traumatized by a couple of life events (my brother’s death and the car accident) and needed help dealing with the anxiety. The doctors though, put me through a gamut of needless x-rays and blood tests. I even had an electroencephalogram, searching for a possible brain tumor. During the procedure, I remember looking at my reflection in the dusty window of Rockingham Memorial Hospital in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I was sitting at the end of the examining table in a hospital gown, my head strung with wires and electrodes. In the window reflection, I looked like Medusa.

“Well,” the technician told me when I peppered him with questions about the findings of the encephalogram, “I’m not supposed to say anything . . . but I will tell you this: you’ve got great alpha waves.”

Great alpha waves, huh?  I thought that must be a good thing.  So, I took some temporary comfort in his prognosis, until the next bout of health phobia.  It wasn’t until I read a book called The Well Body Book by a couple of hippie doctors in the 70’s, that I finally calmed down and started having a little faith in my body. I’ll never forget their discussion of what they called “the three-million year old healer,” your own body’s defenses against disease and illness. They talked about how really rare bad diseases are, and that most infections are viral and therefore survivable.

I’m thinking today about The Well Body book and those hippie doctors’ wise words.  Coronavirus sometimes feels like a modern-day plague–but it’s not.  It’s a viral infection, not like the Bubonic Plague which was bacterial.  Covid will be non-fatal for the vast majority of people.  It’s good to keep this in mind as the pandemic spreads this summer.


Image Credit:  Psychosomatic       Image Credit:  Electroencephalogram

Burning Fences Book Review

Burning Fences (a Western memoir)
by Craig Lesley

Imagine a beat-up old trailer sitting off a gravel road in Monument, Oregon not too far from John Day.  Dried grass and weeds grow up around a cable spool used as a table outside the trailer, and a pile of Oly beer cans sit by the front door. This is the home of Craig Lesley’s father Rudell, a crusty trapper and elk hunter who smells like skunk pee, the bait he uses to trap Coyote.

It’s detail and descriptions like this that make Northwest author, Craig Lesley’s memoir so much fun to read. As a North-westerner myself, I’m familiar with the places Lesley grew up in: the Dalles, Madras, and Baker City, Oregon. But Burning Fences is more than just setting and place: Lesley writes a good story too.

After being abandoned as an infant by his father Rudell, Lesley spent much of his growing up years looking for validation from fatherly figures like Vern, his abusive step-father and Oscar, the uncle that owned a sporting goods store. Lesley gets his big chance to reconnect with Rudell, when his father suddenly shows up in his hospital room after Lesley’s been injured in a farm machinery accident.  Rudell’s flippancy, saying his son got hurt, “playing chicken with a mint chopper” says a great deal about who Rudell is and how much he is willing to give to this new father-son relationship.

Yet despite his father’s lack of commitment—or maybe because of it—Lesley confesses that Rudell’s abandonment helped defined his life. “Rudell’s neglect motivated me to raise an alcohol-damaged Indian boy just to show the old man I could succeed as a father where he had fallen down.”

When Wade, Lesley’s foster son, sets fire to Rudell’s fence post pile, Lesley finally recognizes he cannot control either Wade or Rudell’s behavior. Only then is Lesley willing to burn fences and abandon the expectations he’d had of himself and others.